The American Defense of Religious Freedom in the First Amendment of the Constitution

October 31, 2019

Freedom of Worship by Norman Rockwell, 1943, Norman Rockwell Museum.

Following the American Revolution and the birth of the United States of America, the thirteen American colonies became states in the union and began to draft their state constitutions.  One of the most significant issues within the states had to do with religion.  Americans differed in their views about how to implement religious tolerance and freedom, and about state churches—in which one religious sect receives government financial support and legal privileges.  For while all the states had become more religiously tolerant in the 1700s, nine of the thirteen states still had a state church.  The state church, and the relationship between the church and civil government, was a source of intense debate for Americans.  “The American revolution of religion began,” explains A. James Reichley in his 1985 Religion in American Public Life, “in the battle over religious clauses in the state constitutions.”[1]

Many Americans saw the importance and benefits of religion—namely Christianity—in society in promoting virtue and morality, peace and order among the people.  But they disagreed over how to preserve it in a free society, or how to implement civil government in a Christian or moral context.  Some supported state churches as they had known, while others called for the revolutionary separation of church and civil government.  Heated debates arose in states with official churches like New England’s Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire where Puritan Congregationalism was established and in the states of Virginia, New York, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia where Anglicanism was established.  The issue was less intense in middle colonies with no state churches like Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware which began as pluralistic Christian societies.  The arguments over religion in states like Virginia would later impact the American Founders’ approach to religious freedom at the national level in the U. S. Constitution.

Deal’s Island Camp Meeting. A sketch appearing in The Parson of the Islands: A Biography of the late Rev. Joshua Thomas by Adam Wallace, 1872. Thomas spread Methodism on the Eastern shores of Virginia and Maryland.

Americans who supported state churches saw this establishment as essential for promoting religion—specifically Christianity—and morality in society.  They feared that separating church and government would lead to competition among religious groups, disturbance, disorder, disunity, and the downfall of Christianity in society.[2]  They thus upheld the old-world view that civil rulers are the fathers and mothers of the church, tending to its welfare, as interpreted from Isaiah 49:23 where God tells His people, “Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers.”  Yet they saw the civil ruler’s role not to enforce church doctrine, as seen historically, but to financially support the church and protect religious tolerance.  Tolerant state churches promoted religious freedom, they argued, because they allowed non-conformists to organize and pay taxes to their own churches, and to choose their own ministers.  Pious individuals, they thus thought, should find no threat or violation of conscience in submitting to the authority of a tolerant state church.

In contrast, Americans who wanted to do away with state churches agreed about the benefits of religion in society but thought church and civil government should have distinct domains.  They favored total religious freedom—not just tolerance—through the administrative and financial separation of these two institutions.  Notably, supporters of separation, or Separationists, drew some of their key arguments from the Bible and its teachings—as did early proponents of religious freedom including Rhode Island founder Roger Williams, Pennsylvania founder William Penn, and British philosopher John Locke.  Their primary argument for separation and total religious freedom was the Lockean principle that religious freedom is a natural right.  They supported separation for the following reasons:  1) Separation protects man’s natural right of religious freedom; 2) Civil government has no authority over spiritual matters; 3) Separation reduces corruption in church and government; 4) State churches are not biblical; and 5) True religion can succeed on its own merits.  The revolutionary idea of separation was defended by instrumental American founders including James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.  It was further strengthened by the American values of freedom and equality fought for in the revolution.  To be sure, at the same time that they supported separation, the Founders repeatedly emphasized the importance of religion in a self-governing society in order to instill morality and virtue in the free people.

Separation Protects the Natural Right of Religious Freedom

First, Separationists acknowledged that religious freedom is a natural, unalienable right—a right given by God to all mankind and which cannot be taken away by man without just cause.  Consequently, civil government’s proper role is simply to protect this right, not to regulate religion.  Separation ensures that the proper roles of church and government are maintained.  One leading New England Baptist pastor Rev. Isaac Backus expressed this idea in his 1779 Declaration of Rights of the Inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay, saying, … 

Isaac Backus. Backus also wrote a treatise against tax-supported religion titled Government and Liberty Described and Ecclesiastical Tyranny Exposed, 1778.

In his 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, in which he opposed a church tax in Virginia, U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights architect James Madison of Virginia also recognized this point.  Drawing from Locke, he asserts, … 

Portrait of James Madison by James Vanderlyn, 1816.

As long as civil liberties are not violated and civil society is not threatened, one’s religious beliefs and practices, Backus and Madison argued, are outside of government’s domain.

AHEF President and Miracle of America author Angela Kamrath speaks on religious freedom as an unalienable right at an HBU-AHEF Teacher Workshop, “The History and Foundation of Religious Freedom in America.”

For this reason, Separationists opposed even tolerant state churches because such establishments still assumed authority not just to protect but to grant religious rights to people.  For if a state church or government has the power to grant religious tolerance, it also has the power to change or remove that tolerance.  The establishment could then impose a different belief, intolerance, persecution, or other oppressions.[5]  Madison stressed this danger, posing,

Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?  That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?[6]

Backus shared this concern, saying that though a current ruler or political power may enforce Christianity, earthly states can change, and a state power that at one time supports Christians may at another time persecute them.  Consequently, Separationists wanted to do away with the notion that church and government are tied together.

Civil Government Has No Authority Over Spiritual Matters

Second, Separationists—just as Williams, Penn, and Locke—argued that civil government does not have authority over spiritual matters because it cannot properly discern or judge them.  Drawing from Locke’s 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration and his definition of a commonwealth, Declaration author Thomas Jefferson of Virginia elaborated on this point in his 1776 Notes on Religion: …

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale, 1791.

Since government cannot determine the fate of a person’s soul, it has no reasonable authority over man’s conscience or religious belief.

Separation Reduces Corruption in Church and Civil Government

Third, Separationists, like Williams, Penn, and Locke, argued that a combined state-church system, as history shows, corrupts religion and civil government.  In requiring people to engage in certain religious practices or else suffer punishment, such a system can violate people’s consciences and produce weak, insincere, and/or violent religion.  In addition, a state church’s overseers can become complacent or more easily occupied with worldly interests like money, power, and position, and less concerned with spiritual life.  Lay church members can become overly dependent on the clergy’s teachings and less on sacred scripture itself.  Separation reduces corruption in both institutions and makes religion more free, pure, and true.  As such, in their 1784 Petition Against the Religious Assessment Bill, a group of non-conformist citizens who petitioned against church taxes in Virginia lamented the historical mixing of church and government in the 300s by Roman Emperor Constantine I.  Though originally well-intentioned, this ancient combined system, they saw, led to impure religion and church.  They observe,

Nor was it better for the church when Constantine first established Christianity by human laws.  True, there was rest from persecution.  But how soon [was the church] overrun with error, superstition, and immorality.  How unlike were ministers then, to what they were before, both in orthodoxy of principle and purity of life.[8]

Pope Sylvester I and Emperor Constantine I, 1247, San Silvestro Chapel at Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome.

This establishment only served to “call in many hirelings whose chief motive would be temporal interest.”[9]  Madison similarly observed the corrupting effects of a combined state-church system on religion and churches in history:

During almost fifteen centuries, has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial.  What have been its fruits?  More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity.  In both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.[10]

A combined system pollutes civil government, Madison further thought, in encouraging religious and political tyranny rather than government’s proper role as guardian of the people’s liberties.  Madison believed that “religion & government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.”[11]  Jefferson similarly observed in his Notes on Religion that state churches often lead to false religion.  Citing Romans 14:23, he expresses,

No man has power to let another prescribe his faith.  Faith is not faith without believing.  No man can conform his faith to the dictates of another.  The life & essence of religion consists in the internal persuasion or belief of the mind.  External forms of worship, when against our belief are hypocrisy & impiety.  Rom. 14. 23:  “He that doubteth is damned, if he eat, because he eateth not of faith.  For whatsoever is not of faith, is sin.”[12]

Jefferson later reiterated this point in his 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a bill which made separation a law in Virginia, providing total religious freedom.  The statute says, …

Separationists thus sought for administrative and financial distinction between church and civil government in order to have less corruption in both spheres and more free, sincere religion.

State Churches Are Not Biblical

Fourth, Separationists argued that state churches are not biblical because they a) lead to religious oppression and b) depart from early church practice.  For one, the religious oppression that often issues from state churches is contrary to the spirit of the Christian Gospel.  Like Williams, Penn, and Locke, they argued that religious coercion goes against the teachings of Christ on life, faith, peace, meekness, gentleness, forbearance, and charity or love.  These teachings are found, for example, in 1 Corinthians 13, Ephesians 4, and Colossians 3 and speak of “bearing with one another in love.”  Madison thus denounced religious intolerance and oppression as contrary to “Christian forbearance, love and charity.”[14]  Jefferson likewise observed in his Notes on Religion that “according to the spirit of the gospel, charity, bounty, liberality is due” to all.[15]

The Dunking of David Barrow and Edward Mintz in the Nansemond River, 1778.  Preachers who did not conform to the state church in Virginia were harrassed.

Separationists also pointed out that the early Christian church in the Bible was not tied to civil government.  It had no government aid where it emerged and did not grow by government force.  It received only voluntary financial support.  Despite no public financing, the early church and Christianity flourished in this period.  Citing the example of the early church, the Virginia petitioners declared that “Christ the head of the Church has left plain directions concerning religion, and the manner of supporting its teachers, which should be by free contributions.”[16]  They elaborated,

Certain it is that the Holy Author of our religion not only supported and maintained His Gospel in the world for several hundred years without the aid of civil power, but against all the powers of the earth.  The excellent purity of its precepts and the unblameable behavior of its ministers (with the divine Blessing) made its way through all opposition.[17]

Madison affirmed that early Christianity survived on its own without government support.  He expounds,

[A state-church establishment] is not requisite for the support of the Christian religion.  To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian religion itself, for every page of it [the Bible] disavows a dependence on the powers of this world.  It is a contradiction to fact, for it is known that this religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them; and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence.  Nay, it is a contradiction in terms.  For a religion not invented by human policy, must have pre-existed and been supported before it was established by human policy.[18]

Because the Bible evidences that early Christianity existed and thrived apart from human government, it provided strong support for separation between church and civil government.

True Religion Can Succeed on its Own Merits

Fifth, many Separationists believed, like Locke, that religion should prosper or decline based on its own merits.  Good religion like Christianity, they believed, can defend itself and prevail in a free exchange of ideas.  Madison argued that state churches only weaken Christians’ “pious confidence in its [Christianity’s] innate excellence and the patronage of its Author [God],” and conveys this doubt to others.  Alluding to Hebrews 12:2, he asserted that true faith trusts in God, the “Author and Finisher of our faith,” for its endurance.[19]  Madison later reaffirmed that “there are causes in the human breast, which ensure the perpetuity of religion without the aid of law.”[20]  Jefferson expressed this same idea in his Virginia Statute, writing, “[T]ruth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error.”[21]  American Founder Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania also shared this view that good religion can sustain itself.  In a 1780 letter, he writes,

When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself, and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil powers, ‘tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.[22]

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis, c1785

Incidentally, this reason echoes Acts 5:38-39 where Gamaliel advises the Pharisees not to fight against the Gospel and Jesus’ disciples since truth will prevail.  He admonishes,

Keep away from these men [Jesus’ disciples] and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.

As such, many Separationists thus believed that good religion like Christianity would continue to spread and prosper based on its own qualities and virtues.

In defense of this argument, Separationists cited examples of early American colonies such as Pennsylvania which did not have a state church and was religiously diverse with Christians of many different sects and denominations.  In this colony, morality, peace, and order were maintained.  The Virginia petitioners observe,

That religious establishment and government are linked together, and that the latter cannot exist without the former, is contrary to experience.  Witness the state of Pennsylvania, wherein no such establishment hath taken place.  Their Government stands firm.  And which of the neighbouring states has better members, or brighter morals, and more upright character?[23]

Penn’s Vision by Violet Oakley, 1902-1906, Pennsylvania State Capitol. In this mural, Penn points persecuted Christians in Europe to his colony in America.

Jefferson likewise observed in his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia the voluntary support of religion and the preservation of morality, peace, and order in Pennsylvania.  He notes,

Religion is well supported [in Pennsylvania]; of various kinds indeed, but all good enough; all sufficient to preserve peace and order; or if a sect arises whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reason laughs it out of doors, without suffering the State to be troubled with it.[24]

Contrary to fears, the colonies without state churches, Separationists noted, did not experience disorder or the dissolution of Christianity due to greater religious freedom.  Rather, churches and religious groups there were adequately sustained by voluntary support.  Separationists concluded that independent, voluntary, privately-funded churches were possible.[25]

The Values of Freedom and Equality in the Revolution Reinforce Religious Freedom

The principles of religious freedom as a natural right and of separation between church and civil government were further reinforced at this time by Americans’ views and values of freedom and equality stemming from the American Revolution and as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.  To many, state churches violated equal rights and were contrary to America’s fight for freedom.  After the revolution, religious dissenters who had fought for freedom in the war would not tolerate religious discrimination by fellow Americans.  Catholics, for example, who had previously lacked freedom to worship in many Protestant colonies, asserted their equal religious rights as citizens.  Catholic statesman Charles Carroll of Maryland declared that “freedom and independence—acquired by the united efforts, and cemented with the mingled blood of Protestant and Catholic fellow-citizens, should be equally enjoyed by all.”[26]  Citing his Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, Madison shared this view of religious freedom based on equality, arguing in his Memorial and Remonstrance:  … 

In the wake of the revolution, religious freedom was thus recognized and accepted by many Americans as something that should be equally enjoyed by all citizens in the new nation.

The Importance of Religion in a Free, Self-Governing Society

It is important to note that as the American Founders implemented separation at the national level, they repeatedly emphasized the importance of voluntary religion in promoting virtue and morality in a free society.  For they knew that a self-governing republic like the United States requires a virtuous citizenry in order to successfully function and endure.  For example, Declaration signer Benjamin Rush aptly expressed the relationship of religion to a republic, stating, “…[T]he only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in Religion.  Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.”[28]  Statesman, commander general, and first U. S. President George Washington observed, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.  In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness—these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.”[29]  Declaration signer and second U. S. President John Adams also stressed the importance of religion for virtue and republicanism, writing in a letter, “Statesmen…may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is religion and morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.  The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.”[30]  As such, the Founders strongly encouraged the teaching and expression of religion and morality.

Director of the Center for Law & Liberty and Professor of Government at Houston Baptist University Dr. Chris Hammons speaks on the American Founders’ views and value of religion in society at an HBU-AHEF Teacher Workshop, “The History and Foundation of Religious Freedom in America.”


In conclusion, the founding of the United States compelled the states in the union, as well as the national government, to recognize the religious rights of all citizens and to address the issue of state churches.  While some Americans believed tolerant state churches were workable, others saw separation between church and civil government as the most effective way to protect citizens’ natural, unalienable right of religious freedom.  Drawing from the Bible and Christian teaching, Separationists opposed state churches as unbiblical, corrupting, and outside proper domain; recognized that government cannot judge spiritual matters; and saw that true religion can prosper without force and regulation.  In the end, the Separationists won the argument.

AHEF President and Miracle of America author Angela Kamrath speaks on the Virginia statute and how the American Founders applied religious freedom in the new nation at an HBU-AHEF Teacher Workshop, “The History and Foundation of Religious Freedom in America.”

Subsequently, some states like Virginia implemented complete separation for total religious freedom.  Jefferson’s 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, for example, passed in Virginia with majority support a few months after Madison wrote his Memorial and Remonstrance.  The bill asserted religious freedom as a natural right; eliminated the state church with its religious laws and taxes, and all government involvement in religion; separated civil rights from religious conviction; placed all religious groups on equal standing; and declared religion a voluntary pursuit.  The approval of Jefferson’s statute, says Frank Lambert in his 2003 The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America, provided “a truly revolutionary religious freedom” and was “one of the most revolutionary moments in the entire American Revolution.”[31]  Indeed, Jefferson saw this bill as one of his greatest accomplishments.  While some states maintained tolerant or partial state churches in the 1700s and early 1800s, all states gradually eliminated them in the 1800s as they fell out of favor, even before they were declared unconstitutional.

Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1786 by Thomas Jefferson.

Despite the gradual separation of church and civil government in the states, nearly all the state constitutions from the late 1700s onward continued to reference God and acknowledge the need for religion in society.  They either invoked the favor and guidance of God or expressed gratitude for His blessings of liberty.  In a 1892 court case Church of the Holy Trinity v United States, Supreme Court Justice David J. Brewer noted the inclusion of God in most states’ constitutions, observing:

If we examine the constitutions of the various states, we find in them a constant recognition of religious obligations.  Every constitution of every one of the forty-four states contains language which either directly or by clear implication recognizes a profound reverence for religion and an assumption that its influence in all human affairs is essential to the wellbeing of the community.[32]

Very notably, after implementing separation, the states continued to recognize in their founding documents God as the basis of their civil and religious liberties, and the need for religion in society.

The Religious Clause of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The move toward religious freedom and separation in states like Virginia was important nationally because the state constitutions provided precedents and practical models to the American Founders as they drafted the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.  Ultimately, the Founders separated church and civil government at the national level—prohibiting the establishment of a national church, and securing the “free exercise” of religion in the First Amendment of the Constitution.  As such, they addressed the historically perplexing issue of religion through a Bible-inspired, natural-rights, and rational approach to religious freedom.  This approach enabled them to meet the needs of a pluralistic society and provide greater religious freedom than ever before realized in any nation in history.  In doing so, they created a society where true religious faith, practice, and expression could freely flourish and be enjoyed by all.


[1]  A. James Reichley, Religion in American Public Life (Washington, DC:  Brookings Institution, 1985), 219.

[2]  James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, 1785, in The Writings of James Madison:  1783-1787, vol. 2, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1901), 189.

[3]  Isaac Backus, A Declaration of the Rights, of the Inhabitants of the State of Massachusetts-Bay, in New England, 1779, in The Sacred Rights of Conscience:  Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding, eds. Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark D. Hall (Indianapolis, IN:  Liberty Fund, 2009), 276.

[4]  Madison, Memorial, 184-5.  Madison also acknowledged in the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 that religion is “the duty which we owe to our Creator.”

[5]  Madison, Memorial, 188-90.

[6]  Madison, Memorial, 186.

[7]  Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Religion, October 1776, in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, vol. 2, Federal Edition, ed. Paul L. Ford (New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), 252-268.

[8]  Virginia Citizens, Petition Against The Religious Assessment Bill to the Virginia General Assembly, 2 November 1784, in The Sacred Rights of Conscience:  Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding, eds. Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark D. Hall (Indianapolis, IN:  Liberty Fund, 2009), 308.

[9]  Virginia Citizens, Petition, 308.

[10]  Madison, Memorial, 187.

[11]  James Madison to Edward Livingston, Montpelier, 10 July 1822, in United States Congress, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison:  1816-1828, vol. 3, Congress (Philadelphia:  J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1865), 275.

[12]  Jefferson, Notes on Religion, 252-268.  Williams had declared in his 1644 The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience from Isaiah 10, “True it is, the sword may make, as one the Lord complained, Isa. x., a whole nation of hypocrites.”  Penn had asserted in his 1671 The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience that “Force may make an hypocrite.  It is faith, grounded upon knowledge and consent, that makes a Christian.”

[13]  Thomas Jefferson, An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1786, in Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 8th ed. (Boston, MA:  Printed by David Carlisle, 1801), 326-328.  See also Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, 1786, in A History of Us:  Sourcebook and Index:  Documents That Shaped the American Nation, vol. 11, ed. Steven Mintz (New York:  Oxford U Press, 2002), 56-58.

[14]  Madison, Memorial, 189.  Madison also used this phrase and argument in the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 where he wrote of the “mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.”  Locke had asserted in his Letter Concerning Toleration that “If the gospel and the apostles may be credited, no man may be a Christian without charity, and without that faith which works, not by force, but by love.”

[15]  Jefferson, Notes on Religion, 252-268.

[16]  Virginia Citizens, Petition, 308.

[17]  Virginia Citizens, Petition, 307-308.

[18]  Madison, Memorial, 187.

[19]  Madison, Memorial, 187.  Hebrews 12:2 states, “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (NKJV)

[20]  James Madison to Edward Everett, Montpelier, 19 March 1823, in United States Congress, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison:  1816-1828, vol. 3 (Philadelphia:  J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1865), 307.

[21]  Jefferson, Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, 326-328.  Jefferson also expressed in his Notes on Religion, “Truth will do well enough if left to shift for herself.  …  She has no need of force to procure entrance into the minds of men.  Error indeed has often prevailed by the assistance of power or force.  Truth is the proper & sufficient antagonist to error.”  Locke had asserted in his Letter Concerning Toleration that truth prevails “when strong arguments and good reason are joined with the softness of civility and good usage.”  Locke, incidentally, saw Christianity as the true religion.

[22]  Benjamin Franklin to Dr. Richard Price, Passy, 9 October 1780, in The Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin in Two Volumes, vol. 1, eds. William Temple Franklin and William Duane (Philadelphia:  M’Carty & Davis, 1834), 367.

[23]  Virginia Citizens, Petition, 308.

[24]  Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782, excerpted in The Life and Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Samuel E. Forman (Indianapolis:  Bowen-Merrill Co., 1900), 154.

[25]  Madison, Memorial, 189.

[26]  John Carroll to the Editor of Columbian Magazine, 1 September 1787, in Biographical Sketch of the Most Rev. John Carroll:  first archbishop of Baltimore, ed. John Carroll Brent (Baltimore, MD:  John Murphy, 1843), 142-3.

[27]  Madison, Memorial, 186.  Madison first used the phrase “free exercise of religion” in the religion clause of the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 where he says that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”  Madison later used the “free exercise” phrase in the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution to secure religious freedom in the new nation.

[28]  Benjamin Rush, Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, in Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia, PA:  Printed by Thomas and William Bradford, 1806), 8.

[29]  George Washington, Farewell Address, 17 September 1796, in The Addresses and Messages of the Presidents of the United States, 1789-1846, vol. 1, comp. Edwin Williams (New York:  Edward Walker, 1846), 75.

[30]  John Adams to Zabdiel Adams, Philadelphia, 21 June 1776, in The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, vol. 9, ed. Charles F. Adams (Boston:  Little, Brown, & Co., 1854), 401.

[31]  Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton U Press, 2003), 225, 235.

[32]  Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892).


Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This essay (with endnotes) is available as a printable PDF handout in the member resources section on  Simply sign up and login as a member (no cost), go to the resources page, and look under Miracle of America essays.

Source for more information:  Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.  Third edition (2020) is available!

Related Videos:
1.  American Founders Supported Natural Rights from the Bible, Nature & Reason – Angela E. Kamrath (3.32 min)
2.  Natural Rights Central to the Declaration of Independence – Angela E. Kamrath (.49 min)
3.  How the American Founders Applied Religious Freedom in the New Nation – Angela E. Kamrath (1.36 min)
4.  American Founders Emphasized Religion’s Importance in Society – Dr. Chris Hammons (3.12 min)
5.  The Issue of Religion in the U. S. Constitution – Dr. Chris Hammons (4.51 min)
6.  Thomas Jefferson and the “Wall of Separation” – Dr. Chris Hammons (7.57 min) 

Related Essays:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
2.  The Two Kingdoms Doctrine 
3.  Challenges in the Early Puritan Colonies:  The Dilemma of Religious Laws & Religious Dissent
4.  Roger Williams and His Quest for Religious Purity
5.  Roger Williams:  First Call for Separation of Church and State in America 
6.  William Penn and His “Holy Experiment” in Religious Tolerance
7.  Early Americans supported Religious Tolerance based on God as Judge of Conscience
8.  Early Americans opposed Religious Persecution as contrary to the Biblical Teachings of Christ.
9.  Early Americans argued Religious Coercion opposes Order of Nature
10.  Early Americans Believed Religious Coercion Opposes Reason
11.  Early Americans Supported Religious Tolerance within Civil Peace and Order
12.  Philosopher John Locke & His Defense of Religious Tolerance
13.  The Religious Landscape of the Thirteen Colonies in the Early 1700s
14.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
15.  The Creator God in the Declaration:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
16.  Self-Evident Truth:  A Philosophy of Rights in the Declaration of Independence
17.  John Locke and Algernon Sidney:  A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
18.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights in the Declaration 
19.  America’s Founding Philosophy in the Declaration:  God as Supreme Judge, Lawgiver, and King
20.  America’s Founding Philosophy in the Declaration:  Divine Providence
21.  Gen. George Washington and the Continental Army Rely on God in the American Revolution

Additional Readings/Handouts:
1)  Why Religious Freedom is an Unalienable Right in America by Angela E. Kamrath, American Heritage Education Foundation.  Paper available to download from member resources,
2) Principles of the Bill of Rights by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 400-405, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources (see Miracle of America articles) at  Corresponding educational activities are included in the course guide.
3)  Principles of the First Amendment by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 406-416, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources (see Miracle of America articles) at  Corresponding educational activities are included in the course guide.
4)  Preamble Excerpts of 47 State Constitutions with Adoption Dates found in Miracle of America text, pp. 291-294.
5)  Chapter 8 of Miracle of America reference book/text.  Students read sections 8.1-8.2, 8.5, 8.12, and pp. 290-294.
6)  See “Related Essays” and “Related Videos” listed above.

Poster:  Declaration of Independence


Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 8, Part 2, Activity 3:  The Debate For or Against Religious Establishments, p. 254.  MS-HS.

The Debate For or Against Religious Establishments….

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn about the principle and natural right of religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U. S. Bill of Rights and later by the states, and administrative separation of church and state; considering the meaning, worldview/philosophy, Bible-based connection, and application of these concepts by historical influential thinkers and early Americans.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 8 of Miracle of America reference book/text.  Students read sections 8.2, 8.5, 8.8-8.10, 8.12-8.13, 8.17-8.20, & pp. 288-296.
2)  The American, Bible-based Defense of Religious Freedom by Angela E. Kamrath (above essay).
3)  See also “Additional Readings/Handouts” listed above.
4)  See also “Related Essays/Videos” listed above.

Activity:  Virginia Mock Debate

  • Virginia Mock Debate. The teacher will group students into two groups of founding-era Americans residing in Virginia—Virginians who were for and against religious establishments.  Have students read copied selections from Miracle of America text, research, etc. to understand their position and arguments.  Students should use their political pamphlets from the activity above as a large part of their research/preparation.  Students should be familiar with important original documents, sermons, etc. along with Bible references historically applied by like-minded Americans in order to argue and defend their position.  Student groups should prepare with notes or outlines beforehand as needed.  Groups may decide to assign different points/arguments to different students.  All students should have an opportunity to participate, contributing at least one point or piece of information.  Giving students the option to dress in early American attire and/or to role play early American figures would add an additional element of fun and entertainment. See the “Class Debate Rubric” in the “Supporting Resources” section of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, p. 321.


To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.


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